The child was ill, not sick like ordinary sick, but ill, puzzlingly and frighteningly ill. On first glance, the child had epilepsy or some sort of seizure disorder, he ground his teeth and foamed at the mouth, he seized suddenly and uncontrollably, he convulsed and fell to the ground. The child couldn’t speak or hear, he couldn’t tell his father of the agony or hear his father’s attempt to comfort him. Imagine he was your child, imagine that at one time this son of yours could speak and hear, sing and run and learn and play; imagine the plans you and your son had made, about how he wanted to get married and become a carpenter or a teacher or a soldier. And then imagine that one day everything changed, everything was over, your son was ill, frighteningly ill. And then you heard of this Jesus.
The crowds were in awe of this Jesus when they saw Him coming down off the mountain. The lectionary picks up the story here, with Jesus coming down the mountain, Mount Tabor being the mountain in question, but the Transfiguration, or rather the effects of the Transfiguration, being why the crowds were in awe. In being transfigured, in having His true glory revealed in earthly time and space to Peter, James and John, Jesus’ earthly countenance was changed, glorified; His face still shone from being so glorified, Jesus actually glowed like a child’s Glo-Worm, so that the crowds were amazed. At least the amazement distracted these crowds from what they were crowding around, that same child who was ill. The child’s father saw his chance, saw his chance to get in front of this Jesus, this Jesus whose disciples couldn’t help him. The father makes his entreaty: his child has a deaf and dumb spirit, he seizes and throws himself into the fire and tries to drown himself, he foams and growls and gnashes his teeth, he can’t speak or hear, he is, well, not like my son anymore. Bring him to me, Jesus said, so they did, and things didn’t go so well. The boy did not, no matter what heretical modern scholars tell you, have epilepsy, he had a demon. When the demon inside the boy saw Jesus, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. The demon knew its time was up. “This is how it always is,” said the father; “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to the father, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
I believe; help my unbelief. Where do these people come from that say the best stuff ever. I believe; help my unbelief. I believe….somewhat. I believe….about half of it. I believe….but I could go the other way too. We live in a time in which it is very hard to believe anything. Crooked politicians, fallen priests; some are all too willing to kill the unborn, while others are all too willing to kill those who kill the unborn; pictures now sometimes lie; trust can be a punchline. We weren’t prepared for the terrorist attacks of 9/11 because it was outside of our system of reality, it was outside our own nominally Christian social construct, to believe that people, other humans, would fly jetliners full of innocent people into buildings. Having seen that, having had to remember, having had to relive such things this week, perhaps we can believe anything, and in being able to believe anything, perhaps we believe on nothing.
It wasn’t much better for the father of this sick child, or for anyone in Jesus’ time. Israel was occupied, Rome was as brutal as she was glorious; to be ill meant almost certain death, to be stricken with a demon meant a life barely lived at all. Hope was rarely found and barely worth having. But still, here was this Jesus, the man who spoke as one who had authority, the one who could heal the sick and feed thousands with a child’s lunch, here was this Jesus before whom demons boil and howl, hiss and flee. So the father of the sick child has something, or someone to believe in, if only a little. I believe; help my unbelief.
Jesus took pity on the father as much as He did on the ill child. “He didn’t expect people to have a lot of faith, to live in a cheerfully possessive mode with God. He didn’t say, “If you have faith the size of that mountain, you can say to this mustard seed, ‘Be cast into the sea,’ and it will be done.” He said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed — of a tiny little seed so small you can barely see it with the naked eye — then, you can say to that mountain, ‘Be cast into the sea,’ and it will be done.” There’s a vast difference. Jesus knew how hard it is to have faith.”1 Jesus knew that our houses are built on the rock and the sand, that we believe, but that we need help with our unbelief.
“You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” Jesus spoke, and the demon was then the traumatized one. Shaking and crying the demon fled from Jesus, the demon sure believed that Jesus was able to do all things. What little belief the father had was rewarded, his fears relieved, his son now free.
I believe, help my unbelief. One-hundred and thirty years and two days ago this church was consecrated as a monument to the belief our forefathers, as a foundation built on rock, as the place where we can come to help our unbelief. Father Pettit and Bishop Scarborough, the members of the Vestry in 1879, their names are written on this place, their belief is found in the rock and the glass, the marble and the wood. But at times even their belief was cold and weak, their gloomy fears darkened their faith. That is to say, they were just like us. But we can give thanks that they left for us this place, we can see and touch and be comforted in their belief; we can know that the Lord will remove our doubts as He removed theirs; that in succession from the father of the ill child, from Pettit and Scarborough and all the faithful that have breathed the air in this place, we can give thanks with them that the Lord will strengthen and relieve us, that when we turn to the Lord and say “I believe; help my unbelief,” that Jesus hasn’t changed, that He will show us His glorious, shining face. Lord I believe, help my unbelief.